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Honduras: Lost or 'Re-founded'?

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Tegucigalpa, Honduras -- The Honduran Constitution is just 28-years-old, but according to many Honduran citizens, it's already out of date. The current version of the national charter was composed under the close watch of the ruthless military dictator Policarpo Paz Garcia, who -- backed by the U.S. military and CIA -- conducted a bloody reign of terror against the Honduran people. In 1982, as the national charter was being written, government-sponsored, paramilitary units were roaming the country to suppress all forms of political "dissidence."

Under Garcia, the paramilitary squads were responsible for the torture, kidnapping, and assassination of hundreds of teachers, union leaders, and progressive activists. Experts say the extreme political repression precluded the construction of a participatory constitution - and that problem doesn't seem to have gone away.

"We don't have a democratic process in this country. We have a military process ... We have a very powerful oligarchy that is ruling the country with the army," says internationally renowned human rights expert Dr. Juan Almendares, during an interview. Almendares - who has directed research programs at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, and won awards from Oxfam and the Barbara Chester Foundation - also runs a free clinic in the Honduran capital.

Honduras, says Almendares, is now poised on the brink of the first meaningful constitutional reforms in this troubled country's history. Across the land, thousands of Honduran citizens are signing their names to petitions demanding a Constitutional Assembly - and a series of massive, nation-wide demonstrations are planned for June 28, including a peaceful march on the national Congress building in the capital of Tegucigalpa, to present the petitions and demand a national referendum on the issue.

The date of June 28, says Almendares, was chosen because it will mark the one-year anniversary of the military-backed coup that toppled democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya, who currently lives in exile in the Dominican Republic, had attempted to hold a similar, nonbinding referendum on changing the Constitution the same morning he was ousted.

"The Honduran people want to change the essence of the Constitution, and they've wanted this for a long time," says Almendares, who is also a central figure in the powerful but pacifist National Front of the Popular Resistance (FNRP), which arose in response to the military-backed coup, and the martial law and repression that followed. "We want a state separated from the church. We want freedom of the people. We want people's power," Almendares says.

But as the movement for a more participatory constitution gains momentum in Honduras, the Resistance's leadership is suffering a mysterious wave of assassinations. Many International human rights analysts now believe that that the politically-motivated death squads which plagued Honduras in the 1980s have made a comeback.

"The situation of repression - violations of political and civil rights - is very bad," says Grahame Russell, co-director of the U.S.-based Rights Action, which maintains a team of international observers in Honduras. "The [Lobo] regime [has] implemented a policy of state repression - including the activation of paramilitary death squad groups, to threaten, intimidate, terrorize and kill member of the pro-democracy, anti-coup movement."

"We are living in a state of terror," agrees Dr. Juan Almendares. "There is no security in the country. . . We are in a terrible economic, moral and political crisis."

A demonstrator hammers away at a plaque honoring "Congressman-for-life" and coup-installed "interim president" Roberto Micheletti in San Pedro Sula, on February 27, 2010.

Casualties of the Crisis

According to human rights groups in Honduras, there have been 48 documented assassinations of Resistance members since the putsch last summer, with 15 coming since the inauguration of much-disputed President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, on January 28. Fifty-one percent of the Honduran electorate boycotted the presidential elections that thrust Lobo into power, and regional heavyweights like Brazil and Argentina still refuse to recognize his administration as legitimate, in part because of the militarized elections, as well as the human rights abuses that have occurred under his watch.

Those abuses have become so flagrant and troubling that even some in Washington have taken notice. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) recently journeyed to Honduras on a fact-finding trip:

"I met with numerous men, women and children - as well as with activist groups - who had suffered serious unconscionable abuses," Representative Schakowsky wrote in an e-mail.

"I met with the father of Isis Obed Murillo, who was killed by the military at the airport on July 5th," Schakowsky wrote. "I met with the parents of activists who had fled the country after being harassed by officials. I heard many stories from the people there about arbitrary detentions and about the erosion of security for vulnerable communities."

Schakowsky was so concerned by what she'd seen in Honduras that in March she sent a letter, co-signed by several other high-ranking Representatives, to the U.S. State Department, urging Secretary of State Clinton to take action. But so far, the State Department remains on friendly terms with Lobo. President Obama even went so far as to congratulate Lobo - a wealthy rancher turned politician - for "restoring democratic and constitutional order in Honduras" during a recent phone conversation.

None of this sits well with Representative Schakowsky.

"I was - and still am - very concerned by persistent reports of serious human rights violations in Honduras. There are still allegations that activists and opposition leaders are being targeted for harassment and abuse."

According to Dr. Almendares, the best way to end that cycle of abuse is to allow the people to vote on the issue of a Constitutional Assembly. "We want to have true democracy. It can not be democracy with torture, when the military and those violate human rights have impunity. We don't want that. That's not democracy. That's a false democracy."

During a march on February 27, 2010 in San Pedro Sula, a youthful, pro-democracy demonstrator -- masked due to fear of government reprisal -- holds a stencil which reads: "Stop the massacre of the peasants in Aguan."

Journalists Targeted

It isn't just "activists and opposition leaders" who are being killed mysteriously. Seven journalists were gunned-down in Honduras in six weeks during March and April, prompting international watchdog groups to label Honduras the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. So far, the Honduran authorities have made little effort to investigate these killings.

"We need to get more information on these crimes," says Carlos Lauria, America's Program Senior Coordinator for The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in a cell-phone interview. Lauria said CPJ was already planning to send in a team of investigators to look into the journalist killings, since state and local police have so far seemed powerless. "The state is almost absent. There hasn't been any progress made in any of these cases. It's clear that they need to investigate these threats and prosecute those responsible, but they have not been able to. And that is worrisome," Lauria says.

But Honduras Secretary of Security, Oscar Alvarez, denies that the journalists were killed for professional reasons, instead citing "random violence."

According to Alvarez, "the things that happened to them [happened] when they were not doing journalism. It was not related to their work."

Secretary Alvarez - who was a former officer in the Honduran military, and studied at Texas A&M, Ft. Benning, and the Special Forces School at Fort Bragg - said that for the year 2009, there were 117 kidnappings and 6,000 murders in this impoverished textile and coffee exporter.

"We're hoping to do better next year," Alvarez said. But most experts are predicting those numbers to get worse, not better, in 2010.

Honduran police officers barricade the street to block off a peaceful, pro-democracy protest march in the capital of Tegucigalpa, on February 25, 2010.

Death Squads Rise Again?

Despite the high level of street crime in Honduras, Carlos Lauria of CPJ, does not believe the seven journalists were killed at random.

"How can [the Honduran authorities] say it was random violence when they are not investigating and have nothing on any of these cases? That's just irresponsible. Freedom of expression is a Constitutional right. They have the obligation as a state to provide safety guarantees for all Honduran journalists to go to work without fear of reprisal."

Grahame Russell, of Rights Action, is equally critical of the authorities excuses.

"That the Honduran regime speaks so derisively and cynically about grave human rights violations - including assassinations, illegal detentions, torture - simply demonstrates the degree of impunity with which this regime operates."

Secretary of Security Alvarez admits that death squads were once a political tool in Honduras, but he says those days are over. "I can guarantee you that from our side of the government, we don't promote it, we don't have it, we won't do it."

Alvarez also questions the professionalism of the seven dead journalists.

"Only one of them was certified with the association of journalists in Honduras," he says. "The law says that you have to certify yourself with the association of reporters of Honduras. You have requirements. Go to school. Go to university. And get a degree in journalism . . . Just walking around with a recorder, or having a TV program isn't enough."

But Lauria, of CPJ, strongly disagrees.

"Hondurans should be able to exercise journalism whether they hold a journalism degree or not. A press licensing regime compromises freedom of expression by allowing a limited group to determine who can exercise this universal right and who can't."

Lauria also points out that in 1985, the Costa Rica based Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that laws requiring the mandatory licensing of journalists violate the American Convention on Human Rights.

Lauria, who has spent almost a decade investigating violence against the press in Latin America, says he believes a pattern has emerged in Honduras.

"There seem to be hired hit men involved. The way some of these murders were conducted - journalists driving and a car or van pulled alongside. Gunmen firing from a vehicle. [This] seems to be the work of professional[s]."